National Building Museum explores the concept of home in new exhibit


An installation of 200 household objects at the National Building Museum shows how home life has changed through the years. (Allan Spreche/Courtesy of National Building Museum)

What makes your house a home?

Perhaps it’s the Tiffany lamp in your living room and the barbecue grill in your back yard. Or maybe it’s the mortgage you’re paying and the neighborhood you live in.

The National Building Museum considers all concepts of home, from public housing to gated communities, in the long-term exhibit “House & Home,” which opens Saturday.

“We set out to talk about the differences between a house and home and to look at how those ideas come together,” Sarah A. Leavitt, the exhibit’s curator, said. “The exterior of the homes, the activity on the inside, it’s all related.”

The exhibit includes a display of 200 items used in American homes throughout the years: a hearth toaster (1830s), a meat grinder (1940), a poster of Farrah Fawcett (1976) and a kitchen compost pail (2011). The items were procured in a years-long process, Leavitt said, which included borrowing pieces — a Tiffany lamp, for instance — from museums as well as scouring antiques shops and Web sites including eBay for trinkets such as the snow globe and Hamburglar juice glass from McDonald’s.


Visitors can toucht life-size building materials, ranging from adobe to glass walls. (Allan Sprecher/Courtesy of National Building Museum)

“People use items in their house to express themselves,” Leavitt said. “Homes are eclectic — you could have your grandma’s bowls in the kitchen and your college roommate’s old dresser in the bedroom.”

Visitors can touch six displays that chronicle the history of home construction, from adobe bricks to environmentally friendly glass curtain walls. The exhibit also features specially commissioned models of iconic homes, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and the John Hancock Center in Chicago.

“Residential architecture changes with time,” Leavitt said. “It’s about tracking those changes and thinking about the ways in which architecture affects our everyday lives.”

The final portion of the exhibit, which explores different types of communities, includes a video about the transformation of a Northwest Washington neighborhood. It chronicles LeDroit Park’s beginnings as an all-white suburb in the 1870s to its transformation into a hotbed of African American culture and art in the 1940s.

“We wanted to show a neighborhood where everything had changed — the demographic of the population, race, age — throughout the years,” Leavitt said. “LeDroit Park has a rich, complex story.”

There’s also a timeline that shows the history of the American mortgage system and land-use policy— all reminders that housing is complex and continually changing, Leavitt said.

“We tend to think that the way we live now is the way it always was,” she said. “But I hope people see something different, something surprising that they didn’t know.”


A model of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, which was built in Alexandria in the 1700s. (Model by Studios Eichbaum + Arnold/Photo courtesy of National Building Museum)
Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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